Flour Power

Some of the grandmothers—only in their 50s, but aged by the hardships of living in one of the world’s poorest places—liked the porridge so much that they started dancing, hopping on one foot and then the other, grinning toothless smiles and kicking dust onto their colorful skirts.

From the Fall 2010 edition of Vanderbilt Business

Claire Brown
Claire Brown

Some of the grandmothers—only in their 50s, but aged by the hardships of living in one of the world’s poorest places—liked the porridge so much that they started dancing, hopping on one foot and then the other, grinning toothless smiles and kicking dust onto their colorful skirts. It was mid-morning in rural Alto Molocue in the Zambezia province of Mozambique, and villagers were sampling several new flour mixes, each made of different combinations of ground corn, cashew, soy, moringa and cassava.

The gathering was the joint effort of New Path Nutrition, the nonprofit that Joe Boulier, MBA’10, and I had co-founded; World Vision Mozambique, a humanitarian organization dedicated to helping children; and CETA Industries, a Mozambican company that exports cashews and builds local infrastructure projects. Our successful taste test represented an important step in developing a nutrient-dense flour—farinha forca in Portuguese, the country’s official language—to provide rural Mozambicans with an alternative to traditional maize flour. We all shared the goal of improving the health and nutritional profile of people in the region.

Joe had recently graduated from Owen, sold his possessions, liquidated his 401(k) and moved to Mozambique to develop New Path’s concept for a more sustainable model for food intervention. I was there on a visit accompanied by Clinical Professor of Management Jim Schorr. Together Jim and I snapped pictures and entertained the kids who crowded around while the villagers answered questions about the flours they were testing: Did they like the taste? The color? Which of the five blends, including a control of pure maize flour, did they like the most and why? As the day wore on, we compiled our surveys and notes while the villagers sang and danced and the children scraped the remaining porridge out of the bowls.

Joe and I both had been interested in sub-Saharan Africa prior to graduate school. He had spent several years working with Catholic Relief Services as an auditor on Title II food distribution and AIDS relief projects funded by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief program. I had lived and worked in Tanzania as a researcher for Africa Bridge, a microfinance organization. At Vanderbilt Joe and I became friends and found common ideological ground through Project Pyramid, the Owen-based interdisciplinary initiative focused on applying business models to address sustainable development and poverty alleviation.

We had many conversations and even a few heated arguments about the right ways and wrong ways to approach international development. While we did not always agree, we shared a fundamental desire to see foreign aid interventions accomplished sustainably, driven by local market demands, resources and preferences. The concept of “social enterprise,” using business models and market-based approaches to address social and environmental issues, became especially compelling for us both.

Cashews waiting to be processed
Cashews waiting to be processed

In October 2009 Joe and I received the William N. Pearson Scholarship Award from the Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health (VIGH). The funding allowed us to develop our plans to pursue international development in an innovative way. Fortunately for us, World Vision, which had been working on development issues in Mozambique since the end of the country’s civil war in 1992, contacted the VIGH seeking support on a public-private venture. CETA Industries was offering factory space, local managerial expertise and equipment—enough to run a small-scale flour production facility—to support their workers’ wider rural community.

White maize flour, notoriously nutrient-poor, is an inexpensive and filling food source. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, including Zambezia, it is a staple food, often consumed with every meal. Knowing this, we initially explored the idea of producing nutritionally fortified maize flour for distribution to hospitals and people living with HIV and AIDS. Eventually our idea expanded to include not only these niche areas but also the broader population of Mozambique, specifically there in Zambezia.

Rather than immediately making and distributing food-as-medicine for the poorest of the poor, we convinced the parties involved to try producing instead a maize-cashew flour mix with a taste, color and consistency comparable to traditional maize flour. Our plan would be to employ local labor, use local inputs and sell to a local market at a price equal to that of existing maize flour alternatives, while maintaining a financially viable factory operation. The new mix, we hoped, would be a substitute product that aligned with existing cooking habits and unlocked latent regional demand for healthy flour alternatives. In all, we considered it a promising opportunity to improve nutrition more sustainably in the region.

Village children lining up to taste the porridge
Village children lining up to taste the porridge

During the spring Joe and I refined our idea in Jim Schorr’s Social Enterprise and Entrepreneurship course. After it ended, we invited Jim to stay on as an advisor to New Path Nutrition and to accompany us on a trip to Mozambique. A visit to the area was essential if we were to determine how receptive consumers would be to a new product, test the validity of our many assumptions and projections, and begin establishing our venture.

We flew to Maputo, Mozambique’s capital city, and spent several days conducting meetings with VIGH staff, NGO (nongovernmental organization) partners and local business leaders. Further into the trip, in Quelimane and Alto Molocue, we visited the CETA cashew processing plant and the proposed factory space, met with members of the local farmer’s federation, and conducted taste tests with local villagers. Jim and I then returned to the United States, while Joe stayed on to continue working in the area.

Our taste tests demonstrated a strong preference for a particular blend of the fortified flour, outperforming even the traditional, widely consumed maize variety. Joe and I, however, knew from our days at Owen that we would have to address many other business issues if we were to make this new venture a success. An enthusiastic local response to the initial product was just the beginning.

Pending New Path’s ability to secure additional funds, Joe plans to remain in Mozambique for a year, refining the product, building relationships and proving the overall concept. By the end of his stay, we hope to have a working model for building an economically viable social enterprise that is replicable in other rural sub-Saharan areas.

New Path Nutrition is a registered nonprofit working towards 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. Any donations will be used to allow Joe to remain in Mozambique until the completion of the project. You can reach us at newpathnutrition@gmail.com or via our mailing address: 3000 Hillsboro Pike #104, Nashville, TN 37215. We appreciate your interest and support.

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